Managing email communications can be a source of stress for businesses, even in the best of times. If you email your list too infrequently, they forget about you. But if you’re too eager to land in their inbox, it’s off-putting. You end up with unsubscribes and in spam folders.
Now in the time of COVID-19, things are even more confusing. You don’t want to bombard your already-stressed audience with messages. But going radio silent might give the impression that you don’t have a plan in place to support your customers through this difficult time. Or worse, it could signal that you simply don’t care.
The age-old question of email frequency and cadence is made all the more confusing by the absence of a one-size-fits-all solution. What’s right for your business might not be right for those in other industries (and it might not even be right for your competitor).
The key to nailing the appropriate email cadence lies in your data. When you look to historical trends for information about subscribers based on their behavior, you open the door to pitch-perfect communication with your unique audience.
Look to Your Industry for Keys to Email Frequency
When it comes to data, it’s okay to start broad. If you’re not ready to dive into the nitty-gritty on your audience, or you don’t have enough data about them saved up yet, consider turning to industry trends for guidance.
Start by looking at open rates for your industry. As a general rule, B2Cs send a lot more emails than B2Bs. Within specific industries, there are further differences. If your own open rates are substantially different from those of your peers, that tells you something. Rates that are a lot higher indicate that you’re probably under-emailing. If they’re much lower, you’re likely overdoing it in the messaging department.
As if there isn’t already enough to think about when it comes to email marketing, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the standard guideposts may have shifted.
For example, an urgent care clinic might not ordinarily need to reach out to customers every week. However, during a pandemic, suddenly their customers are eager to hear updates about the latest public safety guidelines and what kinds of testing and services are available at their site.
A fashion retailer, on the other hand, might have gotten into the habit of emailing its customers multiple times a week. But now, with brick and mortar operations shuttered for the time being and many Americans experiencing job loss, it feels inappropriate to email four times a week about the latest designer shoes or sunglasses.
The moral of the story here is to read the room. If others in your industry are still sending communications daily, set a similar pace for yourself to stay top-of-mind. But if you see competitors pulling back, it might be smart for you to take a similar tack.
Let the Numbers Be Your Guide
If you’ve already got some data reserves on your email performance, it’s wise to look at your subscriber data, too. Yes, you can learn a lot from your peers’ data. But there’s no substitute for first-party data about your own audience.
Not all data sets are created equal. When it comes to email, pay attention to a handful of KPIs, including open rate, clickthrough rate, and unsubscribes.
You’ve already investigated your open rate as it compares to your peers, now you have the opportunity to go a little deeper. Comparing your own open rates month-over-month can give you a sense of general sentiment among your audience. An unusually high or low open rate on a specific campaign likely tells you something about the messaging there. If it’s high, it’s a topic your audience is eager to hear more about.
Clickthrough rate (CTR) is the percentage of readers who click on the call-to-action button within the email. A strong CTR is around 2.5 percent. Unsubscribes are self-explanatory—this is anyone who opts out of your mailing list.
There are certainly other email metrics to consider, and your team should take the time to hone in on the KPIs that make the most sense for you. But remember to limit your reporting to a handful of metrics. The more numbers you throw into the mix, the harder it is to draw the right conclusions.
Once you’ve got KPI measurement sorted, it’s time to start experimenting. If you’re noticing low open rates, try something new in your subject line. Consider adding some emojis, if brand-appropriate, or personalize the subject to include the reader’s name.
A weak CTR might indicate an issue with the body copy or with the call to action itself. Unsubscribes could signal that you’re missing the mark on finding topics your audience wants to read about.
Testing and learning is a process. As you continue to run more experiments, you’ll gain even more data and detailed insights on your audience.
Lean into Segmentation
One of the ways that you can further optimize your audience’s email experience is by leaning into segmentation. If you’re sending the same, generic message to everyone on your list, you’re missing out on a massive opportunity.
Mailchimp reports that open rates are nearly 15 percent higher on segmented campaigns, and CTR shoots up by 100 percent! And that boost in opens and clicks translates into real dollars and cents. According to Campaign Monitor, businesses that segment their lists see as much as a 760 percent increase in email revenue.
So how do you ensure you’re segmenting properly and getting the most out of your efforts? Data analytics is at the heart of all smart segmentation. The creation of carefully crafted personas empowers you to hit the right people with the right messaging.
In order to divide your broad audience into more specific segments, start with what you know about their demographics, behaviors, and thought processes. By grouping together members of your audience who act and think alike, you can target them with highly personalized messaging that’s all the more likely to get engagement.
That’s why we like to call segmentation one of the only free lunches in business—it’s a technique that lowers risk and boosts returns. As you get more specific in the messaging you’re sending to each of your readers, you lower the risk that they’ll find your communications bothersome. You understand what they want and need, so you can craft content that speaks to that. With this more targeted messaging, you get more engagement (and, eventually, more revenue).
Let Your Subscribers Set the Pace
Once you’ve gotten your personas and lists in place, you can take your segmentation efforts to the next level. Sometimes the best way to segment your audience is to let them do it for you.
By creating specific message types, you give your audience the chance to opt into the messaging that they’re most interested in receiving. Some people will want to hear from you all the time, from special offers to upcoming events to regular newsletters. Others might have a narrower area of interest.
You can create a number of ways for your audience to self-select into the type of communications they receive from you. Some businesses do it by content type, creating a number of newsletters tailored to specific areas of interest that speak to each persona.
Other organizations allow their audience to dictate the volume of communications they’d like to receive. They may choose to get all of your communications. Alternatively, they can opt for a weekly or monthly roundup that takes up less space in their inboxes.
When you empower your audience to set the cadence for themselves, you greatly diminish the risk that you’ll get unsubscribes due to readers who feel bombarded by your messaging. Not only that but allowing readers to tell you what they want helps you better understand nuances within each persona. That in turn helps you test and experiment with new messaging and approaches.
Consistency Is Key
No matter how many emails you ultimately decide to send, the most important thing is to keep your communications regular. If you want to send three emails a week, that’s fine! But make sure you can keep up that pace, week over week.
Sudden shifts in email frequency are jarring for your readers. A flood of messages one week followed by radio silence the next leaves them scratching their heads about the state of your business; it can even send mixed messages about your reliability. Then, if you come charging back full-force two weeks later, your reader might feel overwhelmed and redirect you to their spam folder.
And though consistency is always important with email marketing, with the realities of COVID-19, there are even more factors to consider. Perhaps you sent a flurry of messages those first few weeks of shutdowns. You had lots of important updates to communicate with your audience, and your previously established cadence got way out of whack.
If you want to return to your regularly scheduled programming, you can’t just drop off suddenly. Instead, consider a taper-down approach. Send fewer and fewer emails each week until you return to your desired cadence. Again, sudden moves can startle your audience.
Marketers have always felt a certain level of stress about setting the right frequency and cadence for email communications. And with the pandemic, we’ve had to toss out the old playbook and learn to roll with the punches.
As we continue to shift back towards normal life, now’s a great time to reevaluate your email marketing strategy. If you haven’t used data to guide you in the past, this is the perfect opportunity to turn over a new leaf. Set yourself up with processes that leverage your customer data and empower you to create the best email marketing experience possible.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.
Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.
Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, Kate; daughter, Leni; and black lab, Royce.